By Sam Louwagie
The Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd grew quiet for what seemed like the first time all day. What had been a raucous group of 13,750 wrestling fans groaned and then became hushed when the announcement came over the arena speakers.
Andrew Howe had been injured and could not continue. Jordan Burroughs would make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team at 174 kilograms.
The disappointment spreading throughout the building — “we all felt it,” USA Wrestling freestyle coach Zeke Jones said — didn’t rise from any hometown bias, even though Howe and Burroughs wrestle for Iowa’s Big Ten rivals. It was because the first match of the duo’s best-of-three series had been electric and seemed to promise an exciting finish.
But it would also be the series’ last match. And even the one person who should have benefited felt sour about it.
“That sucked,” Burroughs said. “I wanted to go out there and wrestle a second match. It’s not fun to win this way. Hopefully he heals up and comes back next year.”
Burroughs, a reigning world freestyle champion, had beaten Howe 4-2, 1-2, 1-0 in a captivating first match.
Burroughs is undefeated across eight events since the end of his college career. He got off to a typically dominant start; less than 20 seconds into the match, he tripped Howe to his back for a 3-point move.
But Howe fought back. Burroughs said he had thought Howe’s only consistent offensive move was a shot to the right leg. But Howe, who is known more for his stingy defense than his attacks, surprised his opponent with a few sweeping shots at his left leg on Saturday night.
“He showed a lot more offense than he did in previous years,” Burroughs said.
It worked. He scored a takedown in the first period, and then two more in the second — including one with just seconds left to win the period.
Burroughs drove his opponent out of bounds for a point in the decisive third period. Later in the period, during a scramble, Howe’s leg twisted and he grabbed it in pain. He shook off the injury and attempted to score a tying point. He came up short, but walked off the mat under his own power. It was difficult not to immediately look forward to round two.
But Mark Manning, Burroughs’ former coach at Nebraska, got a phone call while his athlete was cooling down. It was Jones, who said Howe’s knee was too hurt to wrestle a second match. Manning called it “anti-climactic.”
USA Wrestling officials weren’t able to say how severe the injury was. Neither Howe nor anybody from his camp ever emerged from the locker room tunnel. All anyone knew immediately was that Burroughs was headed to London, and the crowd had to settle for just half of an exciting duel.
“You always want to see your two champions wrestle,” Jones said. “That’s why we’re all in this arena, to watch that happen. When it doesn’t happen, it’s not good.”
But there will likely be more chances to see Burroughs and Howe. The pair are young — Burroughs finished his Nebraska career in 2011, and Howe will return to the NCAA after having taken an Olympic redshirt this year — and seem poised to dominate this weight for years to come. They represent an exciting clash in styles: Burroughs the offensive dynamo and Howe the strong, tough defender.
“He always wrestles me tough,” Burroughs said. “He’s a grinder. We always have battles, so I appreciate wrestling him.”
Jones said he hadn’t talked to Howe yet, but would remind the Wisconsin NCAA champ how young he was. Many of the sport’s greats, Jones pointed out, didn’t make the Olympics while in college.
“What it tells you is that you’re close,” Jones said. “You’re that close to becoming one of the greatest wrestlers in the world. You’re time is coming. It’s just not today.”